For some people, Easter is about an unseen bunny that, for unexplainable reasons, hides eggs and candy for children. For others, it’s about so much more. Easter Sunday is the most important day on the Christian calendar because it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who died on the cross for sin. So what does history say about Jesus’ resurrection? What is the story behind the miracle?
The story of Easter begins early on a Sunday morning when, after an earthquake in Jerusalem, an angel appears at Jesus’ tomb, which was empty. Women, like Mary Magdelene, are the first to learn that Jesus had risen and was alive. Peter, John, Thomas, and others soon became persuaded as well.
When and where did the earthquake occur? What did the angels say to the women? What did the women do after they realized that the tomb was empty and Jesus was alive? Did Peter and John explore the empty tomb for themselves? Who did Jesus appear to and talk with after his resurrection? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Part I: An Earthquake, the Angels, and the Women
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most well-attested events in the ancient world. The literary documentation, historical affirmations, and logical corroboration support that Jesus died on a Friday in the Spring in April of 30 A.D. and physically resurrected three days later, exiting the tomb and appearing to his followers and the most hardened skeptics and doubters.
The New Testament Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — are biographies of Jesus, explaining who he was, what he did, and what he said. Each Gospel writer has a different approach to storytelling, but they each narrate the life of Jesus, who came into the world to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). While each Gospel is unique, the climax of all four is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Early Sunday morning, three days after Jesus died (according to the Jewish reckoning of time), an earthquake shook Jerusalem before sunrise. Matthew reports, “And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matt. 28:2-3, ESV). History shows and modern science reveals that Jerusalem is vulnerable to earthquakes.
The Gospels say that angels were present at Jesus’ empty tomb on Sunday morning. As God’s messengers, angels played a special role in the Easter story, helping the first witnesses understand the significance of the empty tomb. Despite Jesus’ teaching, his followers didn’t expect him to rise physically from the dead, so the angels had to explain what happened.
Women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb early Sunday morning. Each Gospel tells the story in a unique way but with a united message. For example, Matthew and John emphasize the experience of Mary Magdalene (Matt. 28:1; John 20:1-2). In contrast, Mark and Luke explain that a group of women, including Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:2-5, Luke 24:1-5), arrived at the tomb.
When the women arrive and find the tomb empty, the angels explained what happened:
- Matthew 28:6, “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”
- Mark 16:6, “And he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.'”
- Luke 24:5, “And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?'”
- John 20:8-9, “Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”
Part II: Peter and John at the Empty Tomb
After the women realized Jesus was alive, they were eager to share the news. Matthew says, “they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matt. 28:8, ESV). In response to the women’s testimony, the Gospels of Luke and John focus on two of the main characters in their books to conclude their narratives in light of the resurrection.
Luke says that Peter looked in the empty tomb. “But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened” (Luke 24:12, ESV). Peter had denied Jesus three times a few days before this morning. What follows the empty tomb for Peter is meeting the risen Jesus who forgives and restores him (John 21:15-19).
John wrote that he also looked in the empty tomb. It’s important to understand that John refers to himself in the third person in his Gospel. After Mary told the disciples about the empty tomb, “Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in” (John 20:4-5).
Part III: Jesus’ Appearance After the Resurrection
The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t spiritual and invisible. He physically rose from the dead. Numerous people saw him with their eyes. Thomas touched his hands. Peter ate with him. Paul writes that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6, ESV).
Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).” (John 20:15-16)
Jesus appeared to other women. “And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.'” (Matt. 28:9-10).
Jesus appeared to Cleopas and his companion. Jesus said to them, “‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:26-27; cf. Mark 16:12ff)
Jesus appeared to a group of disciples. “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.'” (John 20:19)
Jesus appeared to Thomas. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'” (John 20:27-29)
Events between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension
Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after he rose from the dead. The New Testament contains a few stories from this period, each of which testifies to Jesus being alive.
- Jesus appeared beside the Sea of Tiberius to Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, and others (John 21)
- Jesus delivered the Great Commission to the disciples (Matt. 28:16-20)
- Jesus ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11)
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